Topic: Education and Child Policy

Negative DC Voucher Results Still Don’t Mean Choice Has Failed

It’s not a good thing when a random-assignment study—the research “gold standard” because it controls even for unobservable variables like motivation—finds that using a voucher tends to result in lower standardized test scores. All things equal, we’d like scores to go up. But in the second of the latest evaluations of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, we saw almost exactly the same results as last year: using a voucher resulted in lower math scores that were statistically significant, and reading scores that were lower, but that could have been due to chance.

Last year I wrote about several reasons the first evaluation in no way condemned school choice, and you can read that here. To quickly reiterate, given both DC’s close proximity to other school systems, and the abundant forms of choice within its borders—a huge charter sector and lots of choice among traditional public schools—the voucher program is but a choice minnow in a lake full of largemouth bass. The breakdown of where students in the control group—families who applied for a voucher and did not get one—ended up going to school starkly reveals this. Even without knowing how many went to chosen traditional public schools, we know a majority still attended schools of choice; 43 percent attended charters and 10 percent private schools.

It is also crucial to note that the voucher program has been repeatedly threatened and stifled politically so it has never had real stability, and it is funded at a small fraction of traditional public schooling in DC, getting well less than half of the per-pupil allocation of traditional public schools. As the report states:

The combination of elements—a program whose funding and support has shifted over time at the federal level, operating within a city that offers ample options for parents to choose schools—makes findings from this evaluation challenging to generalize to other settings, such as voucher programs operated statewide or in settings that currently have limited choice options.

There was one standout bit of good news for the program: As my colleague Corey DeAngelis tackles in depth in an upcoming piece in The Hillbe on the lookout for it in the next few days!—parents and students who used vouchers were much more likely than the control group to perceive that their schools were safe. And the negative test score effects come at a time of burgeoning attention to an apparent disconnect between test scores and other outcomes such as how much education students actually complete. And all of these outcomes ignore the most fundamental reason that choice is crucial: in a plural society, with diverse religions, cultures, ethnicities, and philosophies, true freedom and equality can only be achieved when all people can pursue on an equal basis education consistent with their identities and cherished values. A tiny, inequitably funded voucher program is but a halting shuffle in that direction.

Show Me the (Education) Money, Finale!

Long-Term, National: Money and Employees Have Poured In

Now that we’ve looked at scads of data—on spending, staffing, salaries—what can we conclude about the state of resources in public schools?

First, we need to recognize that the period since the Great Recession has been an anomaly in nearly a century of education spending. Whether in total or on a per-pupil basis, until the Great Recession we rarely saw spending decrease, especially after 1943. In the 1919-20 school year, adjusted for inflation, we spent $13.2 billion on public elementary and secondary education. In 08-09 we spent almost $690 billion, or about 52 times as much. Of course enrollment also grew—we only spent about 23 times as much per pupil!

What was the magnitude of the retrenchment between the peak spending year of 08-09 and the recession spending trough, 12-13? Total spending fell from about $690 billion to $636 billion, or 7.8 percent. The average per-pupil expenditure dropped from $13,816 to $12,621, an 8.6 percent decrease. Those dips aren’t nothing, but they are hardly catastrophic. And as of 14-15—the most recent year with federal data—total spending was back up to nearly $668 billion, and per-pupil spending to $13,119.

Teaching staff has also increased long-term. In previous posts we went back to 69-70 for data, but could have gone back to 1955 for national-level figures. Between that year and 2008, public schools went from about 3.7 teachers for every 100 students to 6.5, or about a 76 percent increase. That dropped just slightly—to 6.3 teachers per 100 students—in 2012.  

Teaching staff grew notably over the decades, but non-teaching staff growth has been far more remarkable. Going back to 1949-50, administrative staff per pupil has more than doubled, though still with only one administrator per 325 students. Support staff has grown more than three times larger, from 1 staffer per every 81 kids to about 1 per 26 students. Principals and assistant principals have more than doubled per-pupil.

Even with massive increases in resources, we haven’t seen inflation-adjusted teacher salaries increase all that much. Since 69-70—the farthest back federal data go—salaries have only risen about 6.4 percent. Total per-pupil expenditures, in contrast, grew by around 130 percent. What gives?

All that hiring, especially of non-teachers, for one thing. We’ve hired more teachers relative to enrollment, while teachers as a share of all public schooling staff dropped from over 70 percent in 1949-50 to just below 50 percent in fall 2015. Overall, in 1949-50 there were 19.3 students per staff member of all types—teachers, administrators, guidance counselors. In 2015 there were only 7.9. That’s a lot more salaries over which to spread money. We have also seen benefits’ share of compensation grow (see below). In 00-01 benefits accounted for 17 percent of total, current per-pupil expenditures in public schools, and salaries 64 percent. In 14-15 benefits had moved up to 23 percent and salaries 57 percent.

Short-Term & In Some States: A Historically Rare Case of (Some) Cuts

The Great Recession precipitated real cuts, something seldom seen in public schooling since the early 20th Century. But the cuts were limited, varied greatly by state, and did not occur in all areas of spending.

Between 99-00 and 14-15—the time period for which we could put together consistent, total state-level spending—outlays per-pupil nationally rose from $11,510 to $13,119, though they dropped from a peak of $13,816 in 08-09. Various services, meanwhile, saw increasing outlays not just through the whole period, but also after the recession. This is consistent with a very long-term trend: hiring more and more non-instructional staff, perhaps to deal with ever-increasing bureaucratic demands on schools, as well as assigning to schools increasing non-academic missions. The area where we saw the most significant drop in spending was capital outlays—buying land and erecting buildings.

How about specifically in the restive states? Spending cuts were not necessarily the name of the game. Arizona—which has seen huge increases in enrollment since 1969-70—increased overall spending between 99-00 and 14-15, with a big increase between 99-00 and 07-08. But that could not keep up with enrollment; on a per-pupil basis spending dropped over the period. Colorado also saw overall spending rise, but it just barely fell short of keeping per-pupil funding equal from the beginning to the end of the period. North Carolina increased overall spending slightly, but saw a decline per-pupil. Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, in contrast, saw both overall and per-pupil spending increase.

In terms of what’s been trimmed, some buffeted states saw significant cuts in capital outlays, but that category of spending tended to be very volatile. Generally, states seemed to largely protect or even increase instructional spending, while all saw increases in spending for various types of services, a finding consistent with the increased administrative spending and staffing we have seen nationally. All except Kentucky and Oklahoma have had decreasing teacher salaries since 99-00, and every one of the hot-spot states has seen long-term stagnation in teacher salaries, which is roughly the national trend.

Conclusion

If someone tells you that public school spending has been “gutted” or “cut to the bone,” or any other body-destroying description, the first thing to note is that for many decades prior to the Great Recession we shoved so much food into the public schooling system that it would more accurately have been seen as threatened with obesity than “gutting.” Even since the recession, we haven’t typically gutted anything—significant funding has still flowed—and that includes in most embattled states. That said, at least based on salaries, teachers have seen their compensation stagnate. However, a lack of overall public schooling resources is not to blame for this. It is other things: huge increases in hiring of non-teachers, and compensation moving more toward benefits than salaries.

Show Me the (Education) Money, Part IV!

We’ve looked at the K-12 spending trends both nationally and in restive states, broken down per-pupil expenditures into smaller bits, and added North Carolina. I had planned to finish this spending series with this post, but there are a lot of data to examine so I’m going to put off conclusions to the next—and final—post. We now look at total enrollment and inflation-adjusted expenditures, and then at how staffing and inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have moved, both nationally and for our “hot” states. (On all charts, pay close attention to the horizontal axis. Many start with wider increments of time than they end.)

National

Enrollment: We saw a drop between the 1969-70 school year and 89-90, then enrollment lagrely plateaued between 05-06 and 13-14.

Spending: Total public school revenues (standing in for spending because a longer trend is available) massively increased between 69-70 and 07-08—the Great Recession—at which point they started dropping, but as of 14-15 they had essentially returned to pre-recession levels.   

Teacher Salaries: Average salaries for public school teachers have been pretty stagnant since the late-1980s. The period we have been focusing on intensively—99-00 to 14-15—shows salaries peaking in 09-10, then failing to recover to levels at the beginning of that period.

Teacher Staffing: Public schools have been hiring teachers faster than enrollment has risen, starting at 4.5 teachers per hundred students in 1970 and hitting 6.5 in 2008. It dipped to slightly above 6.2 in 2014.

Non-Teaching Staff: Other staff have been rising relative to teachers, with teachers dropping from 51.5 percent of total staff in 2000 to 49.4 percent in 2015.

Public Schooling Battles: April Dispatch

With 25 conflicts added to the Battle Map, April was a busy month. So busy the Dispatch was delayed again. But better late than never, right?

Just like March, April was heavy with conflicts revolving around guns, as the debate spurred by the Parkland shooting continued. But seemingly eternal hot-spots including Confederate flag displays, prayer in schools, and sex ed flared up, too.

  • Guns: We recorded seven gun-related incidents, most pitting freedom of expression against safety or beliefs about the appropriateness of gun-related messages. Allegations of curbed speech included the Shawnee Mission, KS, school district telling students what they could or could not say at their April 20 walkout to protest gun violence. Students in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Nevada alleged that their pro-gun expression was curbed in various ways. A principal’s pro-gun comments in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC, led to possible disciplinary action against her and prompted Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking if other districts had seen an employee’s speech bring out the “thought police.” A North Carolina state legislator made a moral plea for arming teachers, saying, “We should give them a fighting chance. Otherwise, when they die, and children die whom they could have defended, their blood will be on our hands.” Finally, Kyle Kashuv, a Parkland survivor who has defended gun rights, was repeatedly in the news for actions school personnel allegedly took against him.
  • Confederate Flags: Overall the Map contains 34 conflicts involving displays of Confederate flags, and two new ones were added in April, both revolving around displays on trucks in school parking lots. In Bay City, Michigan, accusations that an African-American student ripped a flag off a truck and the school did nothing about it prompted both pro-flag and Black Lives Matter demonstrations that closed the high school for a day. In Cleveland County, NC, students were suspended for flying Confederate flags. District officials, reacting to widespread displeasure over stories that flag displays were banned, said that it was fine to fly American flags, just not Confederate.
  • Sex Education: Sexuality has so many moral, religious, and safety ramifications, it’s no wonder it is constantly inflaming conflict. Indeed, I still need to read the book (it’s actually been a busy several years, not just month) but scorching disagreement over sex ed is an international phenomenon. April saw a national, coordinated effort to get parents to remove their kids from school to protest overly explicit sex education—dubbed the “Sex Ed Sit Out”—no doubt patterned after the Parkland gun walkout. Meanwhile a bill was introduced in Louisiana to go in the opposite direction, moving away from abstinence-only sex education.
  • Religion: Sex ed elicits a lot of religious concerns, but more directly religious expression and activities also spurred battles in April, as religion has done from the very beginning of public schooling. A bill was introduced in the Louisiana Senate to allow teachers to pray with students during the school day as long it doesn’t interfere with teaching. The Freedom from Religion Foundation warned that the legislation “would encourage teachers to show their students that they prefer and endorse Christianity, ostracizing non-Christian students.” Meanwhile, a teacher in Mobile, AL, was sent home after wearing a t-shirt that said “Just Pray.” Wrote teacher Chris Burrell in a since-deleted Facebook post, “I wasn’t trying to promote religion, it was just my Monday feel-good shirt.” Finally, Worcester, Maryland, saw people (ironically) getting angry over “Mindfulness” yoga, which some residents thought was putting Hindu spiritual activities into the schools, not just promoting good social and emotional health.

There were other conflicts in “the cruelest month,” of course—big headline grabbers involved a racially charged “promposal,” flowers for a gay teacher, and ordered use of Band-Aids—and we also asked a poll question on our Facebook page: “Should parents have the right to keep their child home to protest sex education?” The overwhelming response—95 to 5 percent—was “yes.” Right now we’re asking if it is acceptable for a teacher to pull a student’s hair, presumably in jest, to wake him up. Vote now, and we’ll report the results next month—hopefully towards the beginning of the month.

Show Me the (Education) Money, Tar Heel Edition!

North Carolina is becoming the latest hot spot in the education funding wildfire—thousands of protesting teachers are expected in Raleigh on Wednesday—so before I deliver the promised wrap up on my state spending series, I thought I’d add NC to the mix.

As you can see on the following chart, North Carolina’s total spending per-pupil, which includes both operational and capital costs, fell appreciably between the 1999-00 school year, the earliest with readily available federal data, and 14-15. It dropped from inflation-adjusted $10,397 to $8,986, a roughly 14 percent decline. Like other states already profiled, spending peaked right before the recession, but unlike hot-spot states Colorado, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, it never recovered to eventually exceed the beginning of the period. It basically kept dropping until the last year in the period.

Where have the biggest changes been? Breaking the spending down in the chart below, the state has generally kept instructional spending pretty steady, ending only 3 percent lower in 14-15 than 99-00. The big drops were in capital outlays and interest on school debt. The latter disappeared almost entirely, and the former dropped 71 percent, from $1,549 to $448. Like other hot-spot states, North Carolina saw increases in various support categories, with the biggest percentage increase in “other support,” which grew 50 percent.

So there’s your North Carolina snapshot. Coming next: Our final installment looking at some of the possible reasons for these changes.

Show Me the (Education) Money, Part III!

With “Red for Ed” walkouts continuing in Arizona, and ongoing discussion about how well public K-12 schooling has been funded nationwide, here’s part three of our impromptu series on spending. As promised last week, this post presents the total spending charts for the five states that have been most in the news over funding: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Please see the previous posts for discussions of national spending levels and data sources. The data here are total, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil expenditures on public elementary and secondary schools.

Arizona

Things are looking down in AZ, though with a similar pattern to the nation overall: Spending generally rising before the Great Recession—total expenditures peaked in 07-08 at $11,141—then dropping afterwards. Unlike much of the nation, however, for the entire period total spending in Arizona fell, from $9,837 per pupil to $8,697. And it has a somewhat pronounced spending valley before the recession.

Where were the cuts? While all of the various types of support services saw increases for the overall period—and some saw increases even after the recession—instructional spending, which most people would probably consider the nucleus of what schools do, fell 6 percent for the full period, or $281 per student. The biggest loser was capital outlays, which dropped 58 percent for the period, or by nearly $1,300.

Colorado

Again we see the pattern of overall spending peaking in 07-08, then falling. We also see a loss from the beginning of the period to the end. But Colorado’s decline is much smaller than in AZ; only $86, or a less-than 1 percent dip.

For the overall period, only two sub-categories of spending saw cuts: capital outlays, which dropped 34 percent, and other support services, which fell about 22 percent. Instructional spending rose by roughly 2 percent and even after the recession fell only 14 percent.